Lifesaving Invention

How the toilet has improved our lives

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In 1851, millions of people from all over Europe gathered in London, England. They came to see an exhibit featuring fascinating items, like stuffed zebras, marble statues, and the world’s largest diamond. But what truly amazed crowds was the first flushing toilet. Over five months’ time, 675,000 people waited in line to use it. Why was a toilet such a big deal?

Before the toilet was invented, people in London faced a stinky—and deadly—situation. They disposed of feces by dumping it in streets, ditches, or rivers, where it seeped into the water supply. People who drank from contaminated wells got sick. They didn’t know poop contained germs that could cause serious intestinal infections, like cholera and typhoid.

In 1851, millions of people gathered in London, England. They came from all over Europe to see an unusual exhibit. It contained items like stuffed zebras, marble statues, and the world’s largest diamond. But one item truly amazed crowds. It was the first flushing toilet. Over five months, 675,000 people waited in line to use it. Why was a toilet such a big deal?

Before the toilet came along, people in London faced a stinky problem. It was also a deadly problem. To get rid of feces, they dumped it in streets, ditches, or rivers. Then it leaked into the water supply. People drank from dirty wells and got sick. They didn’t know poop contained germs. These germs could cause serious intestinal infections, like cholera and typhoid.

COURTESY OF GLOBAL COMMUNITIES

TOILETS FOR ALL: The plastic Digni-Loo can easily be installed in places lacking sewers.

Flush toilets didn’t solve the problem at first. They still emptied waste into ditches, spreading disease. Then a heatwave struck the city in 1858, creating what was known as “The Great Stink.” The stench of baking sewage became unbearable. It prompted the city to build a huge sewer system to safely carry away waste water, which kept it from contaminating drinking water. Public health greatly improved.

“Toilets are one of the biggest success stories in human history and one of the greatest medical advances,” says Jesse Shapiro, a sanitation expert at the U.S. Agency for International Development. But today, 2.3 billion people around the world still don’t have access to them. Every year, hundreds of thousands die from illnesses linked to poor sanitation. “What we think are basic necessities are challenges for many people in the world,” says Shapiro.

Flush toilets didn’t solve the problem at first. They still emptied into ditches and caused disease. Then a heatwave hit the city in 1858. It created “The Great Stink.” The smell of baking feces became too much. So the city built a huge sewer system to safely carry away waste from toilets. That kept it out of drinking water. Public health greatly improved.

“Toilets are one of the biggest success stories in human history and one of the greatest medical advances,” says Jesse Shapiro. He’s a sanitation expert at the U.S. Agency for International Development. But today, 2.3 billion people around the world don’t have toilets to use. Poor sanitation still causes illnesses. Hundreds of thousands die from them every year. “What we think are basic necessities are challenges for many people in the world,” says Shapiro.

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